Womanist Roots: Our History with Homosexuality

by Arielle Loren

I’ve found great difficulty unearthing the queer legacy of Black women, partially because the history of African people is so shattered, but primarily because women loving women remains one of our mainstream buried secrets. The roots of homosexuality stretch far beyond my imagination, as same genders have loved each other for centuries. This article is not an attempt to summarize or trivialize those experiences. I’d rather reflect on what is swept under the rug: how some of our most powerful Black women and prominent representatives of womanism love women romantically.

How often do we read the stories of queer womanists where the discussion of their sexuality takes a backseat? When discussing these influential women, the discourse remains about their work. We praise their fierce advocacy for Black women, the strides they’ve taken on our behalves, and the obstacles they’ve helped us to overcome. While I believe that their accomplishments should be the main topic of discussion, I don’t think it’s healthy to be complacent about the manner in which their sexuality is disdained or disregarded.

As Black women, we remain uncomfortable about discussing the intricacies of sexuality and, particularly, our connection to the LGBT community. This is baffling, being that some of our favorite female activists and authors love and make love to bodies with XX chromosomes. Black queer women are legends in our histories. We see pieces of ourselves in them and, likely in majority, believe that they represent us well. Therefore, why would we have a problem with the way that they love? Acknowledging that love has the power to motivate and inspire, can we truly be at odds with the relationships that likely enthused them to be the powerhouses they are?

Our discomfort is with the unfamiliar. Homosexuality constantly is pinned under the label of being “abnormal” or apart from the high-achieving Black lineup. I remember being a young college student and discovering that the majority of my famous Black female role models were queer. Did this inspire me to pursue a lesbian relationship? No. Yet, with the constant discrimination facing the LGBT community, I definitely felt that the acknowledgment of their sexuality along with their esteemed work would help bridge the gap of ignorance. I felt empathy for these women and the catch 22 their legacies are placed under. Why must their sexualities remain unspoken or whispered? It’s about time that we celebrated the manner in which they love/loved and stopped treating it as problematic to our imaginations.

This is a tribute to the way Angela Davis, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Octavia Butler, Nikki Giovanni, and Zora Neale Hurston have loved. This is for the women who love women openly, while constantly taking a side eye from uncomfortable strangers, most of whom resemble them in appearance. These words are for the women who choose not to be open about their sexualities out of the fear of being stereotyped and misunderstood. Our sisters are our sisters. Can we accept them in whole for their intellect, beauty, and talent, without ignoring or despising their homosexuality?

As sisters, we can be contradictory, accepting the pieces of our queer role models and friends that we like while failing to address our prejudices toward their sexuality. I always say, love fully or don’t love at all. Love hard or go home. Embrace your role models for being multi-dimensional women and allow them to challenge your stereotype of homosexuality. Indeed, these women are reflections of ourselves—ones that we should be proud of. The frequency of women loving women in our community has a more familiar face than you would imagine. It remains a powerful source of Black love that is rarely discussed. Look at what these relationships have produced. I pray for more Angelas, Alices, and Zoras in the future. Loved women are powerful women, regardless of which gender does the loving.

Homosexuality is not a discount or defect. These women are just as strong, role model worthy, laudable, and worthy of being the faces of Black womanhood as any heterosexual woman. When we raise our daughters, we should not fear telling them the way in which these women loved. It is an aspect of their personhood, one that should be respected and shared as an example of the power of love.

  • secretaddy

    :) LOVE IT !! I agree with you fully, to discuss these women without acknowledging their sexuality is as ridiculous as discussing these women without acknowledging their race or gender.

    Sexual orientation is a marker that can deem one in a “norm” or “other” category and shld not be take lightly

  • Alexandra

    Very nice article. I’m just getting used to Zora Neal…

    “Homosexuality is not a discount or defect. These women are just as strong, role model worthy, laudable, and worthy of being the faces of Black womanhood as any heterosexual woman. When we raise our daughters, we should not fear telling them the way in which these women loved. It is an aspect of their personhood, one that should be respected and shared as an example of the power of love.”

    I agree. In my opinion, I think ‘some’ people never cared to talk about black lesbians because of the other 2 strikes. But I think more topics about black lesbians need to be talked about. Black women are seen as monolith, way too much for me.

  • Jacquie

    Beautifully written! I’m a “glass-half full” type of woman. I never viewed lesbian or bi-sexual women having a hard time when it comes to the “other sexuality” outside of heterosexuality. I always viewed that male on male are the most discriminated against and have the hardest acceptance/low tolerance. With the “craze” of women dancing with women on the dance floors—our society, due to patriarchy influences is much greater, “favors” or “gives free passes” to lesbians and bisexual women.

    Yet, within the micro of discomfort of “the other sexuality” Heterosexual men will only have an issue if the woman is a Lesbian not Bisexual. For it means that she would NEVER be interested in him. That is when the low tolerance and abuse “begins” (“corrective rape” in which men think raping a lesbian would persuade her to be “straight” or at least bi-sexual).

    As a black woman who isn’t Christian, many of the ancient spirituality of our ancestors “accept” the “other sexuality” as part of an expression of love. From the lwa/loa to orishas and ancient gods and goddesses who are heterosexuals, bisexuals, homosexuals, and transgender. There sexuality really didn’t define them but more of their attributes, personality, stories, and character that was focused more…basically, we are more than who we choose to love. Again, beautiful piece and blessings!

  • http://toxiceuphoria.com Lidia-Anain

    Great article, Arielle! This quote from your article should be a poster, “Loved women are powerful women, regardless of which gender does the loving.” I hope that the next generation of women that comes behind us can be more open about their sexuality in general. I think for our community there are so many stigmas that are related to our religious beliefs. If we can get past placing moral judgment and loving people AS A WHOLE for the way they are…some of the things others that want to judge are the things that make the powerhouses stronger.

  • http://twitter.com/drewshane Drew-Shane

    Many times, we don’t explore the sexuality of our past leaders. It’s like if it’s not in the books, we don’t know about it theory. I don’t think they recognized much of it back in the day. It’s very secretive and nobody’s business but the person they were with. Oh how I wish the days were the same. It’s always a negative association with your character if you’re gay. Society hasn’t learned how to separate the two.

    More positive articles like this is what’s needed. Great job!

  • http://www.newmodelminority.com Renina

    Girl! Thank you for writing this.

    More than anything I appreciate the tone of this piece. As writer, tone be hard sometimes
    especially when you are dealing with the hard shit, like Race, Gender, Sexuality etc..

    @Dede I see you girl, making moves, and I am inspired.

    ~Renina

  • Jason

    When I talk to my nieces (whom adore me utterly) about black heroines (or heroes for that matter) we are not going to talk about who they laid up with.

  • http://arielleloren.com Arielle Loren

    @jacquie first off, thank you for your comment. it’s always refreshing when someone shows their knowledge on one of the ancient religions of African people. I LOVE the stories of the Orishas, truly all black children should read them. If the greek gods can have a place in American schools, so can this Yoruba tradition.

    It’s so funny that you mention society “giving passes” to lesbians and bisexual women. I’m actually going to have a piece out on Carnal Nation later in the week discussing hip “pop,” butches, femmes, and homothugs. I talked about the new “sexiness” of feminine or “femme” women sexually desiring women (so long as a man can still be in the picture).

    I’ll definitely be tweeting the link to the article, so I’d love for you to weigh in. Much love sis!

    and thank you to everyone for your comments!!!

  • http://arielleloren.com Arielle Loren

    I also hope that the next generation of women can be more open about their sexualities. Homosexuality is nothing to be ashamed of….hopefully our children will be able to lessen that gap of social ignorance :-)

  • http://arielleloren.com Arielle Loren

    “to discuss these women without acknowledging their sexuality is as ridiculous as discussing these women without acknowledging their race or gender.”

    mmm! touche!

    thanks for the love twitter fam :-)

  • http://arielleloren.com Arielle Loren

    yes, black women as “monolithic” is WAY too much for me too. I write these types of pieces on the regular because we HAVE to shed some light on our differences.

    Thank you for your comment love!

  • Jason

    ..of course from a biographical perspective you want to know the whole unvarnished truth. But what about pulling historical figures like Lorraine Hansberry and Josephine Baker out of the closet?

  • Jacquie

    @ Arielle Loren- thanks and you’re welcome. I just added Carnal Nation to my Facebook page and looking forward reading your article. I, myself, wrote an article regarding “the other sexuality” @ http://beautifullysmagazine.com/2010/09/when-belief-clashes-with-knowing-the-case-of-the-%e2%80%9cother%e2%80%9d-sexuality/ The page only allotted 800 words: so I had to cut some piece but will be expanding on homosexuality, bi-sexuality, and transgender.

    I think we need more and more heterosexual voices in the anti-homosexual debate to open a peaceful dialogue on anti-homosexuality. I think our voices will be heard by the status quo more over than LGBT. I recall a recent “attack” on a gay man on a comment board and nobody really was listening to him. However, when I spoke up as a heterosexual woman—my voice is hard. Such as, “Saying homosexuality is a choice is like you indirectly admitting that you have an attraction to someone of the same sex but you made a choice to be heterosexual” Being heterosexual was never a choice to me…I was born this way and vice versa. I’ve often time felt when I speak up/debate “my own” heterosexual “people” and speak cruel to them like they spoke cruel to LGBT—they feel so hurt and insulted—I had to remind them that my words and the effect of my words against them is similar to how LGBT are feeling towards their words.

    I do believe some day that everyone will have equal rights. I’m realistic that there will still be hatred, indifference, and ignorance but majority will not.

  • http://sartorialme.blogspot.com/ serenissima

    i really latched on the phrase ‘personal and nobody’s business.’ this is ESPECIALLY true in Black social circles; what people do behind closed doors is supposedly nobody’s business but theirs. so we ignore the sexuality of our female leaders just as we do our pastors, our aunts, sisters, and friends. if we can pretend we dont see it, it doesnt exist

  • Aggie

    I agree. Its all about the judgement. Society fail to observe the character of the individual but rather the acts that are not of thier personal tastes. What does that have to do with you, physically, spiritually or emotionally. It is simply not your business. However, if it is to be present to you, it is time to accept the individual and leave the judgement to GOD. Are YOU perfect? Awesome article!

  • Aggie

    Excuse my mishap, “judgment”.

  • sloane

    wow i love your commentary, and thank you for bringing up how many ancient societies had a place for many kinds of love and gender expressions. very enlightening.

  • http://www.Glennishathewriter.com Glennisha Morgan

    I LOVE THIS ARTICLE!

  • sloane

    @arielle loren- unfortunately i don’t have time to give this article the full response that i want to, but i do want to thank you for discussing womanism as a concept and discussing the invisibility of black lesbianism in womanism/ feminisim. it’s definitely something that needs to be discussed. ;-)

  • Alexandra

    Right! I look forward to others like this article :)

  • sloane

    oh please, if you were telling your nieces about martin luther king, would you NEVER discuss coretta scott king? or if you bring up malcolm x, NEVER mention betty shabazz? or if you’re dicussing medgar evers, is myrlie evers not worth mentioning? were these leaders just “laid up” with these women? were THEIR relationships only based on sex? if not, why would you characterize the lesbian relationships that these black lesbian/queer luminaries had as just sexually relationships not worth mentioning? what if the partners of these women are lumanaries themselves, like audre lorde’s partner, mildred thompson, or alice walker’s partner tracy chapman, or rebecca walker’s partner meshell ndegeocello? being a lesbian about a hell of a lot more then sex. it’s a part of these women’s identities and i’m sure in some way informed their perspectives. it would just be as simple stating in a matter of fact fashion that “audre lorde was a lesbian”. why make something salacious and dirty when it doesn’t HAVE to be?

  • sloane

    *sexual relationships not worth mentioning

  • http://twitter.com/drewshane Drew-Shane

    As far as “nobody’s business” to care or judge. We all know the effects of the down-low “sisters/brothers” so I’m not saying that nor am I saying they should be forced to wear t-shirts with their sexuality. Nobody owes us anything but if we have those who celebrate their lifestyle, we should embrace them.

  • Jason

    Well Sloane while discussing Alice Walker do I also bring up that while she was married to a white man she cheated on him with a black man and torpedoed two marriages? Or that she hasn’t been on speaking terms with her daughter Rebecca because she kept her baby and she refuses to even meet her now six year old grandson? Do I meet to discuss MLK’s jumpoffs outside his marriage? I thought we were supposed to be able to separate the “art from the artist”? At any rate my nieces are little girls and everything is not appropriate.

  • http://arielleloren.com Arielle Loren

    @jacquie YES! YES! YES! YESSSS!!! lol you hit the nail on the head with that and unfortunately, I have to say that a lot of people due tend to listen to my commentary because I’m a heterosexual woman. I think it’s key that heterosexual people and the LGBT community work together to stop all the ignorance. When we look at the successes of the civil rights movement, it came from cross collaboration. Team work is the only way! Regardless of how people came into their sexuality whether it be innately or by choice (I believe that everyone’s path is different), it doesn’t allow for prejudice. Homosexuality is not a social ill.

    As promised, here’s my piece for Carnal Nation. It’s called Hip “Pop” is Drag: Butches, Femmes, & Homothugs

    Enjoy! (i’m about to read your article now)

    http://carnalnation.com/content/58541/1479/hip-pop-drag-butches-femmes-homothugs

  • sloane

    i’m sorry how is the fact that some of these women were lesbians/queer correlating with cheating and not talking to your daughter or seeing your granchild? you’re still painting homosexuality on it’s face, as something lewd and inappropriate. and are you telling me you NEVER considered the biographical details of an artist’s/ public figure’s/ activist’s life, and how their personal lives might color their perspectives and the art that they create or the activism that they are involved in? SERIOUSLY? and you know what? gay people have children, so small children being exposed to the notion of homosexuality is not inherently inappropriate.

  • EmpressDivine

    @ Jason

    I think that in a society that pretty much deifies its artists/celebrities/ppl who are famous for being famous it probably would be a good idea to discuss the more human elements of people’s lives. The personal is political (Patricia Hill Collins). People’s personal lives help shape their political identities. I got more to say but for right now I just wanted to post to keep up with the comments.

  • sloane

    @empress divine- thank you. i was just thinking about that quote.

  • http://redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

    Excellent piece, Arielle. I’m glad someone is continually advocating for the GLBT community on websites black folk frequent. It’s such a touchy topic in the black community and I think it’s high time folks stop trying to pretend that being gay is a “white thang” and embrace us queers without judgment or disdain.

  • Michelle

    Even though I am a hetero, I will say that I find myself getting irritated/angry when I hear other heteros say something along the lines of “I have no problem with it (homosexuality) just as long it is kept behind closed doors” and they say this when they see a homosexual couple doing simple gestures with each other (hold hands, drape an arm over the back of a chair/across the shoulders of love one), but wouldn’t bat an eyelash if it was a heterosexual couple.

  • asada

    Darn it!!

    you all were doing so well with the comment until afew had to come in with the ‘phobia ridden comments. Sigh….

    But I must say
    awesome post!!!

  • Miss Rae

    @ Michelle, I thought I was the only one who felt that way, It anyone who says “I dont have a problem with homosexuality but…” usually does. I use terms LGBT or straight instead of homosexual or heterosexual. It’s call sexual orientation for a reason. Oh I cant stand when some of the guys I know say “No homo” smh

  • Akai (Akai.Santiago@Yahoo)

    Jacquie: “I think we need more and more heterosexual voices in the anti-homosexual debate to open a peaceful dialogue on anti-homosexuality. I think our voices will be heard by the status quo more over than LGBT…”
    ******************************************************************************************************************

    I read your article (dug much of what you had to say) and so agree with the above in additionto your commentary about the acceptance in ancient spirituality. It piqued my interest and reminded me of other ancient societies that were more or less accepting.

    i.e. India’s Hinduism is known as the oldest living religion and the Vedas recognized a third sex i.e. the god Ardhanarisvara (not the same as hermaphrodites or transgendered) and today they are called hijras. From the ancient Mayans and Incas to several North American indígena cultures, a third gender category (“two spirit”) was also recognized i.e. winkte (Lakota), diné (Navajo), nina*something* (forgot what they were called) in the Peigan/Blackfoot tribe etc. It was the same throughout Polynesia where they were called fa’afafine in Samoa, mahu vahine in Tahiti, whakawahine by the Maori, fakaleiti in Tonga etc.

    On the Indian subcontinent, Polynesia, among the indígena etc. members of the “third sex” were revered, thought to have special powers and had a place in society. Unfortunately, the criminalizing, demonizing, abusing, vilifying and ostracizing came about in post-modern times (particularly with colonialism and it’s save-da-heathens spread of ‘Christianity’ and also Islam). For example, homosexuality wasn’t illegal in India until the British imposed their oppressive rule/laws and, though some may act as if homosexuality was imported into African societies by Europeans, it was alive and well from day one on the continent and what Europeans imported was intolerance and homophobia.

  • http://antiintellect.wordpress.com Anti-Intellect

    This post left me in tears.

    If I had a nickel for the people who claim to appreciate Alice Walker’s The Color Purple but fail to recognize the central theme of LOVE knows no boundaries, I would be rich.

    Shug and Celie shared LOVE. DEEP, Powerful, transformative love.

  • sloane

    just because some people have the unearned privilege of being “heard” more then others when they speak, does not mean those without that privilege should be prevented from expressing themselves any way they feel necessary.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jessica-R-McJunkins/1492749007 Jessica R. McJunkins

    I’m with you Sloane. To omit something so important to the history of such iconic women is insulting to their legacy.

    Learning about a historical figure includes learning everything about them, the good as well as the bad. When I studied about Dr. King in detail, yes, I learned of his infidelities. And as for Ms. Walker, I was informed as to the dysfunction of her family as well. Without this information, what we do learn lacks a fundamentally human element, and these figures become that much harder to relate to; their literature can take on an abstract quality, which defeats the purpose of reading it entirely.

    Censoring the education of your nieces on the basis of sexual preference is akin to education departments editing history texts to exclude women based on gender discrimination. Step into the 21st century, for your nieces’ sake, if not for any other reason. On top of that, wouldn’t you prefer to give them the history lesson first, before a stranger has the chance to corrupt their minds with some sort of watered down version of African American history? If you take the time to give them the whole truth regarding these iconic members of society, they will retain YOUR information, because you are a loved one, and they’ll have a strong foundation with which they can fight the ignorance about our culture that is still so prevalent today.

  • Pingback: This Week: Summer Ends, Womanism, Hip “Pop”, Homosexuality | Arielle Loren

  • Akai (Akai.Santiago@Yahoo)

    @Jason: I agree with you in some respects.

    I’m speaking in terms of legal relationships involving consenting adults…but either an individual, writer, actress, poet’s etc. sexuality, partners and sexual escapades are irrelevant, nobody’s business and should be kept out of the mix when discussing their books, words, art, contributions etc. …or they shouldn’t.

    Can’t have it both ways!

    People can’t say how others should raise/deal with their own children, young cousins, nieces or nephews or dictate what they should/shouldn’t discuss or expose them to.

    I judge the necessity of sharing some things on an ‘age appropriate’ basis and don’t know that I feel certain things necessary (or even appropriate) to share with small children i.e. telling them the truth that MLK, Jr. was an unfaithful cheater while they’re doing a homework project in celebration of his birthday in January.

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